If anybody ever wrote a Field Guide to Alcoholics, with
descriptions of their appearance, sexual behavior and habitats, there would be
a full-color portrait on the cover of Tommy, the hero of "Trees
Lounge." Steve Buscemi, who plays Tommy and also wrote and directed the
film, knows about alcoholism from the inside out and backward, and his movie is
the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen.
is 31 years old, an unemployed auto mechanic. For eight years he dated Theresa
(Elizabeth Bracco), but recently she dumped him, married his ex-boss, and is
having a baby (maybe Tommy's but who knows?). Tommy, who lives in an
unremarkable section of Long Island, spends his days in Trees Lounge, a corner
bar that is perfectly established in an early shot showing Bill, an aging
alcoholic, gazing blankly into space before rousing himself to use sign
language to order another double shot. The close-up of Bill's face is a
complete portrait of a man whose world has grown smaller and smaller, until
finally it has defined itself as the task of drinking.
has a stubborn spirit. He goes through the motions of having fun, but
everything in his life is breaking down, including his car, which stalls
whenever he removes his foot from the pedal. As a mechanic, you'd think he
could fix it, but he uses more direct methods, asking a friend to keep a foot
on the gas while Tommy dashes into the lounge for "just one drink."
The bartender, who knows him, bets him $10 he can't have just one.
Lounge" doesn't paint a depressing portrait of Tommy, just a realistic
one. Any alcoholic knows that life is not all bad, that there comes a moment
between the morning's hangover and the night's oblivion when things are
balanced very nicely, and the sun slants in through the bar windows, and
there's a good song on the jukebox, and the customers might even start dancing.
Tommy makes some headway one afternoon with a woman he meets in the bar; like a
lot of drinkers, she can dance better than she can stand.
I met Buscemi at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where "Trees Lounge"
premiered, he said the movie was a portrait of a direction his life was going
in before he started acting. He remembers it well; remembers such perfect
details as a scene where Tommy's drinking buddy, Mike, is fascinated by a
stupid bar trick that Tommy is performing ("I'll bet I can drink two beers
before you can drink one shot"). Mike's wife, who sees him only during pit
stops from his drinking, walks into the bar and essentially wants to tell him
she's taking the kid and leaving, but Mike is too interested in the bar trick
to focus on this news.
makes money occasionally by driving a Good Humor truck, although he does not
look in good humor. On his rounds he encounters Debbie, a 17-year-old girl he
knows (Chloe Sevigny, from "Kids," who finds just the right note for
the role). They spend some time together that leads to a wrestling match at his
house. "Nothing happened--we just made out like a couple of teenagers,"
he later says, but Debbie's father is understandably enraged and destroys the
Good Humor truck with a baseball bat.
of this seeking, drinking, dancing and wrestling is centered on Tommy's pain
because his former girlfriend dumped him. The film comes to its epiphany in
when he visits Theresa in the maternity ward, and apologizes for being a geek
when he dated her, and cries and thinks maybe he could straighten out if he had
a kid. Drunks always think that if they could fix all the things that are
wrong, then they could stop drinking. It never occurs to them to stop drinking
is the house act of American independent films. He was the talkative killer in
"Fargo," and Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs," and has been in
more than 30 other recent movies. Critics love to describe him ("skinny,
bug-eyed, twitchy"--New York Times; "caffeinated downtown geek whose
feelings seem to bleed right through his pale vampire skin"--Entertainment
Weekly; "oyster-eyed"--Mr. Showbiz). He is above all able to project
the quality of bone-weariness. It is almost a little noble, the way he endures
what the disease of alcoholism is putting him through. He keeps planning,
dreaming, hoping. And always there is Trees Lounge, where the living dead sit
at the bar, waiting for him to return with news of the world.